Friday, June 27, 2014

How Houston can boost police coverage without busting the budget

Say you're chief of the fourth largest police department in the country. You need more warm bodies to investigate crimes but the city's revenue cap means you can't afford to hire more officers. Why not use the ones you've got more intelligently?

A consultant's report (pdf) released last month found that Houston PD failed to investigate 20,000 offenses for which officers had "workable leads." Reported the Houston Chronicle, "The report noted that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 assaults and nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs were not investigated last year. The data was based on monthly HPD management reports of cases with workable leads." From the Chron, see:
I meant to post these links before now except Grits suffers from the same nagging feeling as Charles Kuffner that "We need more context to the HPD no-investigations issue." Many cases go uninvestigated for a variety of reasons, so is 20,000 typical, high, low? The low clearance rates on burglaries don't surprise me; we have the same issues in Austin. Reported crime has declined in recent years in Houston, so something's working in a positive direction. But whether that's because of police practices, demographic changes, economic improvement, declining background levels of lead, the rise of video games and cable TV, who knows? What's responsible remains largely a mystery.

In Houston, the announcement has predictably led to calls for H-Town to hire more police officers, so let's focus on that. Assume for a moment more officers are needed (and I agree with Kuff that how many is a legitimate debate). The city is strapped so how to pay for it?

Here's how to boost the number of police officers available on patrol while freeing up officers to work as detectives in the burglary and other backlogged divisions:
  • Implement verified response for burglar alarm calls, requiring alarm companies to verify a crime was committed before dispatching police. These alarms are 98-99% false, almost never result in arrests, and account for 10-12% of most departments' patrol calls. This one reform would be the equivalent of increasing patrol staffing by ten percent.
  • Begin to use discretion given police by the Legislature in 2007 to write citations instead of making arrests for driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana.
  • Follow Texas' other large cities by issuing paraphernalia citations for crack pipes instead of sending them to the crime lab to scrape traces off for state-jail felony possession prosecution. (See Harris County District Judge Mike McSpadden's letter to the Legislature urging this reform.)
Those three changes would free up many thousands of police hours without costing the city a dime - certainly enough to allow HPD to adjust staffing levels to create a few dozen new detective slots. Indeed, the last couple of bulleted items would probably save the county money, too.


Phelps said...

Does Houston still waste officers on traffic patrol setting up speed traps and writing tickets? Because Dallas has done away with that nonsense with great results.

You can still get a ticket in Dallas, but you get one by actually driving dangerously rather than just for driving a particular speed above the number that a bureaucrat (probably illegally) set.

Dallas still runs speed traps, but only where residents have been complaining about excessive speed. And even then, they sometimes just put out a "your speed" radar gun sign, which the studies show has an identical speed reduction effect.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, last I checked Houston and Dallas had both reduced the number of tickets they're writing by roughly the same amount. See here.

Lee said...

You dont get points as a police officer by writing tickets or summons for something you can arrest for.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Lee, then maybe they need to change how they give out points! (E.g., see here for an example.)

Phantom Bureaucrat said...

Verified response has been suggested many times over the years but it was felt that the city could no longer charge an alarm permit fee if they took that option. Those fees help fund the system and are considerable. The city has instructed their call takers and dispatchers to cancel alarm calls made by alarm companies if no permit exists (except for other government agencies, schools) or to not respond to alarm calls if they exceed a certain number. The net impact is to remove the suggestion as the low lying fruit as most of the benefit has been achieved in this long standing practice.

Even if HPD were to allow citations to be issued for pot, the officer would still have to write a report, tag the evidence, and handle all other aspects as though it were the higher level charge. I don't see this changing and frankly, the savings in time is modest as long as all the other aspects of the interaction remain because placing someone in jail does not take all that long.

The paraphernalia suggestion follows the above path too. Even to make the municipal court case, you will need the pot tested or the pipe tested, the defendant has the same rights in a municipal case for evidence to be tested as the higher charge.

Houston's limited traffic enforcement units do go to locations where accidents happen, where they are requested, and where reason merits more often than not. Even if you threw every one of their traffic units into investigations, it would amount to a drop in the bucket, the department actually needing a whole lot more enforcement given what I see driving throughout town.

And "Lee" is incorrect regarding credit for tickets over arrests as both count as arrest activities on their work cards. For that matter, arresting someone for simple possession of pot counts the same as a ticket at most stations in Houston, the only difference is you also get credit for doing a report on the pot arrest

I'm not convinced hiring another couple thousand officers is a fiscally prudent move myself but the city does need to prioritize, get classified (expensive) officers out of doing mundane chores better handled by cheaper civilians, and combining services with county to yield more efficient results with their money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Phantom bureaucrat: Alarm fees are "considerable" but far less than the cost of paying police officers to chase down false alarm calls. This is one of those areas you reference that's better handled by civilians, and in fact it should be handled by the private sector.

On the pot and paraphernalia charges, the big time savings comes from avoiding taking the defendant to the jail for booking, which depending on the day of week, time of day, etc., can take an excessively long time in Houston. The new booking center won't be open for three years.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, by now, the police (both types) are fully aware of the Texas TapOut Rate & have basically said "fuck it".

Why bother putting yourself in harms way arresting the criminals when the ADA & Defense are being enabled by the bench to forego all of those rights afforded to the guilty & not guilty alike, resulting in plea bargains for 97% +/-. You can get the same credits dealing with easy-peasey scared lil kids & anyone on probation. It's like shooting credits in a barrel.

When the entire street decides to never call the cops due to past experiences involving doing absolutely nothing or, going way over board by treating the caller as a criminal, you get neighborhood watches. You can't rinse off lazy or, throw money at it folks, you have to put it on a diet and eventually fire it. Or, you risk Good getting a lil Bad on it due to close quarters.

When you sit back & allow your city councils to turn your police departments into investment banks, don't be surprised to learn that they prioritized whats deems to be criminal activity worthy of enforcing and ignoring.

Hiring more bankers with six shooters and teaching them to investigate after decades of celebrating careers devoid of participating in the art will be fun to witness.

Getting them to unlearn the facts being taught in regards to businesses and homes with alarms in certain zip codes are to be ignored due to Insurance policies and it not being cool to treat 911 callers as criminals both on the phone and at the crime scenes, should be a friggin hoot. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the HPOU. The HPD union. Far too powerful. The chief can't discipline anyone. Can't fire them either. The DA is even afraid to prosecute officers who commit crimes. And the city cannot afford to hire more officers (wouldn't solve much anyway) because the pension system costs so much to fund.

The only viable solution is to dissolve HPD and have the sheriff's department take over duties for the city. But again, the union is too powerful and would lobby the legislature to create a law preventing this from being done.

Houston, you have a problem...